Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: George Logan
Officious intermeddler, or really nice Quaker?
Ask him about: Working vacation in Paris
As the public becomes suddenly, intensely interested in any shred of previously-confined-to-textbooks arcana that might be dragged out of the law closet to explain or mitigate the current Presidential administration, this is a bizarrely entertaining time for legal scholars. (Faithless electors! Emoluments! The 25th Amendment!)
The latest of these, invoked around the supposition of Trump associates conducting conversation with Russian government officials, is the 1799 Logan Act. To be fair, this is not a new issue: the Logan Act has been dragged out as a possible remedy by nearly any disgruntled partisan over the years to object to the conduct of some politician or activist they don’t like (don’t believe me? Just ask Jimmy Carter, Obama, Trump, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda and Ross Perot).
The Logan Act has a simple message. In short: “Hey, you! Yes, you. Are you part of the executive branch? No? Then don’t negotiate with foreign governments.”
Have a drink with: Dr. James Barry
Poodle enthusiast, dandy, ace physician
Ask them about: trans soldiers
On July 26, President Trump announced a ban on transgender military service, citing the unsubstantiated likelihood that trans soldiers would subject the military to increased medical costs and an unacceptable degree of “disruption.” LGBT rights groups have since filed suit.
For proof that military accomplishment and gender fluidity readily walk hand in hand, we can look to James Barry, a 19th century military surgeon in the British Army who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone in his life, had been born Margaret Ann Bulkeley.
Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…
Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism
The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.
This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.
Have a drink with: Bathing Suit Lizards
Ask them about: Beachy fun, pig roasts, union cosplay.
If you’re thinking about ways to enjoy your summer, rest assured: the past can help. As it turns out, just like you, people in the early 20th century spent plenty of time thinking about things like bathing suit fashions, picnic etiquette, kid-friendly outings and water safety.
Bring the Kids!
At the annual Asbury Park Baby Parade in 1919, 75,000 people attended the annual pageant, complete with carriages, floats, pony carts, a Tom Thumb wedding and, for the first time in the history of the parade, an official contribution by New Jersey itself: the state being officially represented by two floats courtesy of the Bureau of Child Hygiene, “one a symbolization of the mother State protecting the children, the other a humorous float depicting ‘A Strike in Babyland.”
Paternalism! Tiny Teamsters! Ponies!
So. On to barbecue?
Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!
Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?
I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Have a drink at: The Central Park Zoo
Ask about: Does the gift shop sell firearms?
Highly partisan news engineered to manipulate media and line the owners’ pockets has become particularly virulent in current politics – and, thanks to the wackadoo likes of Alex Jones, highly visible as well – but it is not the first time this has happened. Manufacturing news whole cloth – for personal gain, sensationalism, manipulation or pure amusement – is nothing new. The New York Herald, under the 19th century management of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was a regular exercise in information manipulation and partisan journalism. And if you think the gay frogs were a bad trip, just consider the rhinoceros that wrecked Manhattan.
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.